Written by: Frank Pierson
Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, James Broderick, Charles Durning
As much as heist films would make you think differently, bank robberies typically occur out of a place of desperation. There are more sophisticated to illegally get your hands on money without going into an institution loaded with weapons and hoping to escape before the police arrive. This desperation causes individuals who know no better to try and scrounge up money from the closest place they know has large amounts of funds, which usually means it’s a bank. Dog Day Afternoon displays a case of ultimate desperation, as the story divulges the catalyst for this action.
The First Brooklyn Savings Bank receives an unexpected visit from Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and Sal Naturile (John Cazale) looking to make an unauthorized withdrawal. After discovering the lack of funds at this particular establishment, the robbery turns into a hostage standoff with the police where Sal and Sonny try to find a way out of this mess.
Starting out as a typical bank robbery and then shifting into a completely different set of circumstances, Dog Day Afternoon provides a meaningful story helped along by two excellent performers mastering their roles. The tension of any bank robbery speaks for itself, but the frustration emanating from Sonny, as he tries to fix what everything has turned into is palpable. With this being his first attempt to ever do something like this, the inexperience and improvisation necessary shows, which helps in fostering a strange relationship with the employees at this bank.
Some could describe it as Stockholm Syndrome, but this story shows the breakdown of Sonny, as he’s at his most menacing at the very beginning and the rest of the narrative seeks to open him up and make him more sympathetic at each turn. This attempt certainly does not come off as hollow, because what gets revealed about his situation and what caused this sudden need to steal from a bank breaks the heart. Considering this came out in the 1970s, having this topic spoken of truly shocked me and really explains it all for Sonny. He does not treat the employees with any malice, as they became a means for survival for him and Sal. It gets to a point where they begin to help the two robbers find a way out of this situation.
Another unexpected turn in the story appears in the media circus the robbery becomes with hoards of people getting as close as they can to the yellow tape set up by the police to see what’s occurring. From general intrigue into cheering, Sonny unexpectedly becomes a hero to these people partly because of how his personal life gets dragged into everything as the police and the media attempt to negotiate with him. Bringing his mother and wife to speak with him unravels all of his insecurities and shame for these actions. With the spotlight of the entire city bearing down on Sonny and Sal, they struggle in trying to compose themselves, as they know they’re out of their depth. Nervousness remains constant, as the reality of this having a happy ending dwindles with each passing minute.
For an actor with a filmography as loaded as Al Pacino, picking out the one defining performance shouldn’t be an easy task, but Dog Day Afternoon makes it quite clear. The work Pacino accomplishes with Sonny runs a balance of vulnerability and ferocity always on the verge of implosion. Sweaty and frustrated with how this robbery turned out, a look of desperation remains on Pacino’s face for a majority of the film exemplifying Sonny’s inability to fully handle the circumstance happening. Pacino truly does special work with this character and it stands out as his greatest performance, which is saying something considering the many iconic roles he has taken on in his legendary career.
Creating tension in tight spaces is nothing new for director Sidney Lumet, as he expertly crafted his masterpiece in his first film 12 Angry Men. Similarly, he brilliantly uses blocking to make this bank feel smaller as the tension ramps up for Sonny and Sal and their clock for peaceful negotiations begins to run out. Lumet manages to make the bank robbers the most sympathetic characters of the entire piece because he focuses on their personal strife and why they needed the money. It’s not to make it rich or even make a statement, which shows in the working-class feel of the protagonist. Framing it in this way displays why the crowd begins to cheer his name whenever he would step out to talk to the police.
A bank robbery as never seen before, Dog Day Afternoon ramps up the tension as the gravity of the situation begins to clamp down on the two sympathetic robbers. From initial menaces to near allies with bank employees, Sonny and Sal get caught up in a breaking point in American culture and it shows in the way the crowd acts around them. It shows once again the masterful skill of Sidney Lumet as a director and a vehicle for Pacino to be as boisterous as ever.